The New York School is the name given to a loose coalition of American poets, painters, and musicians which formed in the 1940s and became very active in the 1950s in New York City. Critics suggest that their work was a reaction to the Confessionalist movement in contemporary poetry. They sought to widen the consciousness of Americans through poetry, art, and music.
Poets most often associated with this group are John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Barbara Guest, Kenward Elmslie, Ron Padgett, and James Schuyler. There are also similarities between the New York School and the earlier Beat Generation poets active in 1940s and 1950s in New York City. Some poets associated with this distinct group are Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Diane di Prima, Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Joan Kerouac, and Elise Cowen. This was a time in America when the economy afforded many families the luxuries of a suburban lifestyle, thus tending towards a conformity that these poets felt was false and deplorable. This was also a time when the United States was engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, leading towards a time of distrust among many Americans because of assumed threats against national security. Poets portrayed their thoughts and emotions through revolutionary poems about these times and attempted to produce a new way of thinking and living. Their poetic subject matter was observational, sometimes light though oftentimes violent, and in many ways describing why their generation was so "beaten down" or fatigued. This was their way of portraying the hopelessness that these poets saw in America's masses, in conforming to society. Examples of these feelings are in poems such as "Kaddish" and "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, and "Naked Lunch" and "Junky" by William Burroughs. Their writing style was often described as revolutionary, cosmopolitan, cultist, and populist as they often drew inspiration from Surrealism, Cubism, and the contemporary avant-garde art movement, particularly the action paintings of their friends in the New York City art circle. Many poetry readings would occur in art galleries as well as coffee houses and "beatnik" cafes in the hopes of raising the consciousness of people and to offer alternatives to an American lifestyle that the poets felt was too materialistic and conforming.
The women poets are best described by Anne Waldman, a writer in the 1960s:
The women of the Beat (generation) were considered the epitome of cool. They were black-stockinged hipsters, renegade artists, intellectual muses, and gypsy poets who helped change our culture forever. They were feminist before the word was coined, and their work stands beside that of the men.
Painters most often associated with the group are Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Joe Brainard, Mark Rothko, and, to a lesser extent, Grace Hartigan, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. These artists shared the belief that one should be physically enveloped within their artwork and each tried to depict their concepts of the necessary or essential aspects of art. Many of them adapted to the art of abstract expressionism by turning away from the actual depiction of objects or scenes and using raw emotion and subjectivity through the spontaneous application of color or other objects to the canvas. In one aspect, this was a response to the end of WWII with the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These artists felt that the enormity of the destruction only spelled disaster for the human race. Thus their message to the populace was in action paintings where different brush sizes, strokes, and dissimilar paint applications were used. At times, drips, paint blobs, and mistakes were incorporated into the final work. An example would be Willem de Kooning's Gotham News which shows the art of abandoning control with the elements of creating the painting. Another example of shunning traditional techniques and using bold pigments and lines to express the feelings of these painters is the work of Jackson Pollock. A description of Jackson Pollock's work by Alfonso Ossorio, National Gallery of Art, appears to characterize the artists of the New York School: (He has) "broken all the traditions of the past and unified them… (He has) gone beyond cubism, beyond Picasso and surrealism, beyond everything that had happened in art… His work expressed both action and contemplation." Through the advancement of the New York School's portrayal of a new way to communicate feelings and emotions, the center of the art world began to shift from Europe (Paris) to America (New York).
The New York School also refers to a circle of composers in the 1950s that orbited around John Cage: Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and David Tudor above all. Their music paralleled the music and events of the Fluxus group, and drew its character from the Abstract Expressionist painters as described above. What brought these artists together was a faith in the liberation of the unconscious and an excitement drawn from the street energies of Manhattan and the many boroughs of New York City. These composers broke away from the traditional specificities of earlier classical music to attempt to use all methods of sound and silence. Their compositions became flexible to the point of sometimes not specifying instrumentation, scoring, or parts. Their philosophy appeared to place the musician and the listener into important creational positions, thus veering away from the passive acceptance of the composer's directions to becoming an active contributor to an interpretive musical style. For example, John Cage would modify traditional instruments, i.e., the piano, so that the instrument would produce sounds aberrational to the traditional pianoforte but in line with the sound production for his pieces. He would also write in periods of silence to be just as important as the notes and rhythms of the composition. John Cage's philosophy of giving each musical sound and silence equality in significance hints at the composer's link to Zen Buddhism and the I Ching philosophies. Flexibility was the key for participants of the New York School and they portrayed music as life in a state of flux with unexpected beginnings and endings.
- Allen, Donald Merriam, ed. 1969. The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. ISBN 0-520-20953-2
- Lehman, David. 1998. The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. ISBN 0-385-49533-1
- Padgett, Ron and Shapiro, David, eds. 1970. An Anthology of New York Poets. Random House. ISBN 0-394-40451-3
- Perloff, Marjorie. 1977. Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters. ISBN 0-226-66059-1
- Ward, Geoff. 2001. Statutes of Liberty, The New York School of Poets. 2nd edition. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-78639-4